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Examining the state of the bullpen

The Mariners bullpen underperformed last year, and it's only gotten thinner since then. What can they do?

Harry How

For as fast and furious as the off-season began, it's slowed to a complete crawl, outside of the Rangers snatching up Shin-Soo Choo right before Christmas break. You can blame the break for that, and you can also blame it for the site being a little slow over the past ten days, as I've been home for about a total of 24 hours since December 23rd. Now that things are returning to normal, the transactions will start to follow.

This is the time of year when a lot of relievers start to sign, as teams got their major acquisitions out of the way and now look to finish things up with marginal upgrades, or low-risk fliers. The Astros netted themselves Jesse Crain, who dominated 2013 before losing his second half to injury. He's a guy I would have loved the Mariners to acquire, but there are still more pressing needs on this roster, the most glaring on which remains the rotation.

Still, the Mariners will have to take a look at the bullpen soon. The Mariners pen provided 3.7 fWAR last year, which was right in the middle of the pack - but a lot of that is due to Danny Farquhar (1.9 fWAR), who struggled to perform up to the level of his peripherals until the second half. Fangraphs WAR, as many of you know, is based on FIP - so while the Mariners had baseball's 2nd worst bullpen ERA at 4.58, the talent is still there. Charlie Furbush and Oliver Perez were the team's second and best relievers at 1.1 and 0.8 fWAR, but they both had matching 3.74 ERAs.

The Mariners bullpen was homer-prone and perhaps bit unlucky. With baseball's highest .315 BABIP combined with a league-worst 70.1% strand rate, the pen got knocked around, and it often happened at the worst possible times. It might not have just been luck, too - there's legitimate arguments for many of the young pitchers losing their composure with runners on base.

Maybe some of that improvement comes with experience, but maybe it doesn't. Expect some positive regression, but don't expect it to auto-correct to a league average bullpen. The Mariners are paper thin at relief pitcher, especially with Carter Capps departing for Logan Morrison, Tom Wilhelmsen lost at sea, and Oliver Perez still floating around the offseason pile.

Assuming no other moves, here's a theoretical bullpen the Mariners could open the season with.

LHP Charlie Furbush
LHP Lucas Luetge
RHP Tom Wilhelmsen
RHP Stephen Pryor
RHP Yoervis Medina
RHP Logan Bawcom
CP Danny Farquhar

It looks terrifying when put on paper. Pryor will have pitched 7 innings in the past year and a half, Luetge hasn't been particularly effective in over a year, Wilhelmsen lost his command and then imploded in his minor league demotion, Medina can't be expected to outperform his peripherals again, and Bawcom has yet to throw a major league inning, despite his relative effectiveness at AAA last year. Other unlisted internal options provide similar question marks.

That leaves two members of the bullpen who should be projected with relative confidence going forward - Charlie Furbush and Danny Farquhar.

Even though relievers are of far less importance than other members of the team, they still make a difference, especially in the volatility of a team who may be on the brink of contention. If this team manages to make the moves that bring them to 85 wins on paper, they'll have a small shot of squeezing their way into 90 if things go right. One run games. Bullpen management. Skill and luck. They can't be done if they want that to happen.

The first order of business should be bringing back Oliver Perez, who actually did the Mariners a favor by giving up a ton of runs in the second half, driving down his cost. He missed a ton of bats last year, increasing both his strikeout and walk rates, but his 3.36 xFIP is among the best of the remaining relievers, and given his age and still inconsistent track record, he isn't going to cost anywhere near what the other premium options will. The Mariners need to find room in the budget for this, and shouldn't have any trepidation going to two years if that's what it takes.

After that, it gets more expensive to add impact relievers. Fernando Rodney has been connected to the Mariners before, but it seems pretty unlikely that they'd outbid Baltimore or another contender. However, one name to keep in mind is Grant Balfour. The Mariners had interest in Balfour before they went all-in on Cano, and now that his price tag is falling after questions about his medicals arose with Baltimore, he could come at a fortuitous discount. His initial agreement of 2 years, $15 million was fairly reasonable to begin with, and now that's going to fall. If Balfour is available for 2 years, $10 million or less - the Mariners (following a thorough medical examination of their own) would be wise to get back into the game.

Other than Perez and Balfour, it's all about internal options or reclamation projects. Brandon Maurer could end up in the bullpen, though it would be a bummer to give up on him as a starter so quickly. Maurer gave a taste of his reliever potential late in the year, throwing absolute fire for an inning or two right out of the gate, and he also pieced together three or four solid starts in Septemeber. He has the tools to be a dominant late-inning reliever if the M's move him in that direction. Depending on who else they acquire, the bullpen may also include Erasmo Ramirez or James Paxton, but it'd be ideal to have those guys already stretched out as insurance policies in AAA if they aren't in the big league rotation. Externally, there's names like Ryan Madson, who hasn't pitched since 2011 and is attempting a comeback. They could turn to the international market too - there's Ordisamer Despainge, who the M's showed interest in back in October, or they could dip back into Japan, depending on who else is posted. Jayson Stark, by the way, tweeted this morning that the Mariners are the "team to watch out for" when it comes to Tanaka. Strap in.

There's very little chance that the Mariners are done adding to the bullpen. It's simply too inexperienced and inconsistent for them to enter 2013 with what they've got. How they choose to supplement it is uncertain, but it should start with Oliver Perez and kicking the tires on Grant Balfour.